Josh Augustin of Vansire recently scored a 1920s Russian silent film ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ as part of our new Limited Series, we’ll be releasing the full album – combining instrumental tracks with dream pop and hip hop – on vinyl. – Spirit Goth
This piece started in a composition class I was taking. The assignment was to create harmonic motion continuously moving downwards. Even though the original composition predates my score for Man with a Movie Camera by three or four years, I definitely had some late-Romantic Russian composers in the back of my mind while I was working on it. Balakirev, Rebikov, and Scriabin (in his more tonal phase) all come to mind as specific influences. There really is something to be said for how heart-rendingly mournful and gorgeous the work of Russian composers in this era could be. There aren’t too many moments where I pay explicit tribute to them, so it seemed important to do that right out of the gates. I changed some of the inflection here and there to line up with the title cuts as Vertov’s introductory manifesto plays, and it introduces one of the motifs that pops up across the score (often repurposed in a major tonality).
Flowing right along into the opening shots featuring a reel of film being loaded and people ambling into an empty auditorium, this track leans on a single drone to set the stage as the orchestra tunes and movie-goers take their seats. Isolated electric piano notes ring with a great deal of feedback in their delay to create a bit of distortion.
Prelude and Fugue
Those well-versed in Baroque musical forms might scold me for having a loose interpretation of what constitutes a “prelude and fugue,” but in the most basic sense, we have two movements in the same key, the initial murky piano notes and a chopped-and-screwed/reversed rendition of everything you just heard with the melody of the previous track (albeit in a much more tape warbled, distorted form).
With this track the film starts building a bit of motion, as the titular “man” with a movie camera sets out in a car to capture a shot of a train, perilously positioning himself in a hole beneath the tracks in a moment built up for comedic shock value (one of the few in the film which echo the more slapstick oriented pre-Code silent films of America happening around the same time). I introduce a new melodic motif here as well.
This is one of the other moments to pay direct tribute to the Russian composers – Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor. The middle section of the piece features a famous series of dazzling chordal triplets that descend across the piano in a climactic moment (immensely popular with Russian audiences, much to Rachmaninoff’s chagrin as eager fans would frequently demand him to play “the thing”). This one utilizes that triplet pattern across other various harmonic occurrences, ending with a direct quotation from the piece which ends up tonicizing the beginning of the next track.
Hundred Plus (feat. Benny the Butcher & Conway the Machine)
This is one of two tracks to feature rappers on the album – it isn’t in the full version of the score posted online, but I figured in album format it might be nice to have a couple human voices pop up along the way. I felt that the tape-fluttered sounds of this score weren’t that far off from the world of sample-oriented hip-hop, the kind of crate-digging Dilla-indebted style premised on an interesting sample and a good bit of swing. I had never really treated my own work as a sample in such direct terms so it was a fun challenge working on this track. The boom-bap drums in the official film version are much more tempered, but here I cranked them up a bit. I’ve been a fan of Griselda for awhile, and managed to get a hold of Benny and Conway – I’ve deeply admired their work for quite awhile now, so it was a great honor to have them on here. All the samples they use are so dusty and lucious (big kudos to Daringer for holding down a lot of their production – their features on Freddie Gibbs’ Alfredo is also a match made in heaven with the Alchemist’s production). The opening chordal swells descending chromatically between major and minor sevens, continuing into the main progression with a sort of jazz-oriented ii V I styling that takes a couple liberties along the way.
Dziga’s Waltz [Chopped and Screwed]
The regular version hasn’t occurred in the score yet, but this chopped and screwed version of a waltz felt like an appropriate landing pad coming out of the last track.
This track is essentially the subsequent “Streetcars” reversed and sped up. There was a lot of brief circular and mechanical motion in this section and some of the stilted reversed tones felt like an appropriate emulation of that movement.
This was one of my favorite portions of the entire film to work on. Like Hundred Plus, it’s one of the few moments where I used conventional drums that lean in a boom-bap direction. The bassline was from a Juno 106 which I’ve often had trouble getting interesting sounds out of (lots of weird, harsh presets left on board by the previous owner) but I managed to find a blurpy/squelchy sound for a looping bass that I enjoyed. A distorted clav from my Nord comes in later – most of the sounds on this track and many of the others on the entire score come from that Nord (flutes, strings, percussion, etc.). There’s a bit of guitar as well. This moment starts bouncing around traffic a bit, starting right off the bat with a very scintillating shot of a guy on a bike. I tried to line up some of these moments with shots of passing trains – eventually the guitar pops in to play the opening motif before we speed up into the score’s single moment of lo-fi garage rock (a horse pulling a carriage in a very exciting sequence which cuts back and forth between the family being pictured and Vertov’s brother filming the action). The moment it cuts into a minimalist 7/4 piece happens as we freeze on a frame of the running horse. It’s a shockingly beautiful moment in the film as Vertov begins to dissect the filmmaking process itself, introducing previous and future images from the film under the hands of his wife and editor of the film Yelizaveta Svilova. Everything on this part of the track is guitar.
This one was kind of a lucky coincidence – I needed to fill a four minute segment bouncing between a funeral, a marriage registration, a divorce, and a baby’s birth. Most of what you hear is just Tuning and Prelude and Fugue being pitched around and revered. Luckily it ended up syncing quite well with the visual material – the strings begin chugging along right as the birth takes place, with some melancholic traveling around in chopped-and-screwed region before that as we get some beautiful shots of a funeral procession.
At this point in the film we see a man with a head injury – the Car Ride motif is brought back in a minor context. At the end, a bell rings along with a bell on screen – this is one of the major moments where I was able to utilize a philosophy of impressionist renderings of diegetic-sounds. In this case a bell does technically ring with the bell, but it becomes part of the score through some kind of tonal or rhythmic means.
What Else (feat. Boldly James)
In this case, the bells become the primary sample in a Boldy James track. This version is also not in the film version, but it was a joy to have him on here. I first came across his work in the early 2010s on a compilation that matched Detroit rappers to various Dilla beats. Now he’s a more recent member of Griselda which is super cool.
Once again, pretty much all Nord sounds on this track. I wanted a couple moments to go in a more whimsy direction (a full score of really sad, slow shit would be too onerous) so this track felt appropriate to layer over some moments of haircuts/bathing/other light-hearted activities.
Dziga’s Waltz undergoes some metric modulation into 4/4, transitioning directly into Production. This was a fun section because it’s one of the most consistently fast-paced and punctuated portions of the film. Vertov literally whirrs up the speed here with machinery whizzing at full speed, and workers’ hands flying as they pack cigarettes and connect lines on telephone switchboards. Lining up the rimshots with the slapping newspapers and cigarette packs was a bit tricky but I think it paid off. Distorted bassoon rings in the darker “underground” section, and the Editing Room motif reappears in 6/4. It all comes to a clattering halt right at the end in one of the more percussive sections of the entire score.
Defend the Security of the Soviet State
This is named for the banner which hangs off the massive ship we see pass by, in a moment I read as a clear rhythmic shift out of the previous section into slower territory. It’s also one of the “impressionist diegetic” moments with the horn setting the new key when strings enter, tonicizing the next track much like the beginning of Hundred Plus.
The Sporting Life [Introduction]
This introduces the theme of the next track with some Nord Rhodes noodling – it’s a lovely bit of stop-motion in the film, one of the countless techniques Vertov utilized which were quite revelatory for the moment.
The Sporting Life
This section of Man with a Movie Camera features some of the most gorgeous slow-motion in cinematic history as people throw, run, and jump into water. The looping synth sound comes from a Korg Poly 61 which broke shortly after recording (this is one of the only sounds I ever got out of it. I think I actually ordered it from Russia on Reverb).
The Beach and the Magician
This is a well-paced, romantic moment from Vertov as the cameraman wanders the beach and people hang out in the sand. A lot of casual movie fans may veer away from silent films of this era because they seem too campy or weirdly abstracted out of modern-day time due to the technological limitations of the era, but I always felt this was such a beautiful section that really captured the vitality and joy of people living at this time. The magician section is also undeniably cute as he cuts between a guy pulling rings out of thin air/making mice disappear to reverse shots of children reacting.
The energy picks up here once again, but it’s a bit more measured than in production. Vertov captures a race track and a carousel in hypnotic fashion, so it felt like an appropriate moment to bring back some of the minimalist motif and keep it all on guitar so it would maintain a sort of textural “bumpy” affect.
Hundred Plus [Instrumental Reprise]
This is probably the campiest moment of the film as Vertov superimposes the cameraman into a glass of beer, and swirls around the camera to emulate drunkenness, but again, all of this was incredibly groundbreaking for the time. The instrumental version of Hundred Plus soundtracks this section, whose highlights include an arcade shooting range of people targeting and firing at swastikas. Along with a couple Soviet-era busts, it’s one of the few direct temporal markers in the film and an eerie precursor to the next world war.
Accordions and Spoons
As the title suggests, spoons and accordions (and even a human voice) appear on screen in the first moment since the orchestra at the beginning of the film in which actual instruments are pictured. Anyone trying to score this section is kind of left with their hands tied – you don’t really have any choice but to use that specific instrumentation, so I tried to make it interesting.
Chopped and screwed Beach and the Magician, signalling the return of some stop-motion, and the audience’s reintroduction as they watch it play out.
Things pick up once again, and here I bring back the minimalist theme to inject a bit of adrenaline in the film’s closing minutes. A bit more impressionist diegetic action as a plane flies by on screen and the telephone operators reappear. There’s also a fun little ticking clock section at the end. Getting all of these portions to line up and not feel forced was pretty difficult, but this tempo ended up working well.
Man with a Movie Camera [Finale]
This is sort of the final go-for-broke moment where I tried to reintroduce as many themes as possible as the film comes to its abrupt halt with a final shot of a passing train. Using a bit of timpani noise here was fun.
I didn’t include this in the film version, but thought it would be nice to include a piano-recorded version of the opening track as a closing gesture.
Hard to Tell [Demo]
This is a pop-oriented reinterpretation of the harmonic motion and melody of Dziga’s Waltz. It doesn’t appear on the film version but I thought it might be nice to toss on as a bonus track for a last bit of human voice interest to keep new listeners intrigued. The lyrics are self-contained and don’t really have anything to do with the score or the movie, but you’ll notice the chorus follows the piano melody of the waltz (in a different meter).